Full disclaimer – I love Toto and I love the song Africa, ever since it’s release 35 years ago. But I am very intrigued and fascinated by how this song has grown in popularity to the point that it was in the Top 20 of the Pop Digital Sales Chart this Summer. Why Africa? Why Toto? Why now? [You can read the story of how the song, Africa, was created here.]
My initial feeling is who cares; people like it and so do I. People in the US have finally come around on Toto and have begun to appreciate their work, wanting to see them live – welcome to the party – even though they haven’t stopped working in during their 40 years together and have been loved for decades by the Europeans.
Africa was recently covered by Weezer, in what I feel is a weak version, but it did reach #1 on the alternative charts. But you can’t tell me that 2018 Weezer has enough cred to make Toto seem cool. If anything, their cover made more people want to hear the original.
But let’s try to tackle my original question – why the hell am I playing Africa at a wedding? Most folks have roughly 2-3 hours tops to have any danceable songs they want to be played. Yet I can segue from Timberlake or Lil Jon right into that opening samba shuffle of Jeff Porcaro’s and people lose their minds. Friends and family gather into a tight little pod, gently sway and as Jeff hits that drum fill before the chorus, they all raise their hands and scream to the heavens, “gonna take a lot to drag me away from you….” or whatever their version may be. It’s pretty cool to watch, a communal experience inside of one of life’s most important personal events. And isn’t that what’s cool about music, its ability to bring us together and make us feel happy? Maybe that sounds cliche or a bit overwrought, but as popular music rarely connects all age groups, genders, race, economic groups, etc, it can be quite comforting to know that in 2018 an almost-40-year-old song has the power to do that.
So how could I ever imagine that a song that I first enjoyed as an eleven-year-old would give me a new joy as a forty-plus-year-old? Maybe trying to answer the question of why its popular is just wasting the energy I could instead spend on pulling out my copy of Toto IV and playing the last song on Side 2.
When you sell as many albums and have as much success as the Eagles did in the mid to late 70s, everyone’s gonna want a piece of you. Here’s a compilation of Top 40 songs that feature backing vocals by one or more of the Eagles:
While some pop rock artists in the 70s tried to be the next Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan is the rare mainstream artist to have very few, if any, imitators. Their style of jazz infused rock with precise production and tight performance has no doubt influenced many yet yielded few peers. Maybe it just took us some time to catch up to them and their innovative sound because in the last few decades I have heard more bands especially from other countries that have heavily added some of that Steely spice into their cookbook.
One of my favorite NuCoast bands is a Canadian quartet from Toronto called Monkey House. Formed in the early 90s by singer/songwriter Don Breithaupt, who also wrote one of the Continuum 33 1/3 Series of books on Steely Dan’s Aja, Monkey House have released 6 albums with each one sounding more and more like a lost Fagen and Becker session. Their last release in 2016, Left, featuring past and current Steely collaborators, Michael Leonhart and Jay Graydon, reached #24 on the Billboard Jazz albums chart, but that may be misleading as tracks like My Top 10 List and the Purdie Shuffle-esque It’s Already Dark In New York lean more towards WestCoast jazz rock.
The track I feel Steely fans may enjoy the most is the tune, It Works For Me off of the Left album. If you ever wondered what the Dan would have sounded like in 2000 had they used the Pretzel Logic era rather than the Gaucho era as a jumping off point, this would be it. It Works For Me is a concise pop song that still leaves room to breathe, featuring horn riffs that are reminiscent of My Old School, lead guitar by Reelin In the Years soloist, Elliott Randall and mu chords galore, utilizes the best of Steely’s assets, transforming them into a contemporary pop arrangement that should have received wider recognition. Lyrically reflecting a world where thinking for yourself means taking a stand against those who always tell you what to do, Don B’s vocal stylings come off a little smoother than Don F’s but the words that are sung are still reminiscent of the latter’s wry humor and unique outlook.
Monkey House is planning their seventh release late this year, so get in on these guys before they break out.
When the Doobie Brothers had their second #1 hit in early 1979, the Grammy-winning What A Fool Believes, it was a career high for the band, but also represented the pinnacle of a decade long struggle for success by its singer and co-writer, Michael McDonald. The song made him a star, with his voice his most recognizable asset. So powerful and popular was that song that other artists from various genres tried to capture some of that Fool magic, with some succeeding and some not.
Here’s a short clip of those who tried to reason away ripping off the Doobies….
In these chaotic and mind-scrambling times, we need to relax to something mellow, something hip, something cool. And who better to deliver that than the professor of the Cool School, Mr. Michael Franks, with his first album in 7 years, The Music In My Head.
But if you would like to get a crash course in Franks-ology, check out this article on my 9 favorite Michael Franks tunes from his 50-year career.
In order to escape the sharpening political climate of the 1980s, we needed something to assuage the chaos. Moving into the Me decade, West Coast music grabbed a strong foothold of the pop charts.
Here’s a sample of Top 40 West Coast pop from 1980-1984:
“We don’t meet people by accident. They are meant to cross our path for a reason…”
Have you had a chance to enjoy watching Steely Dan on tour over the past 20 years? Do you enjoy your evenings by cranking up Two Against Nature for a little Jack Of Speed? None of that may have been possible had Donald Fagen and Walter Becker separately engaged in a musical project by a former supermodel. Read the story about the catalyst which sparked one of the greatest and improbable comebacks in rock.
In the music industry it is rare for a songwriter and/or a producer to work exclusively for one client. Although he has worked a few other artists such as Irene Cara and Cher, John Farrar is one of the few who’s success has been with singer Olivia Newton-John. He was written and/or produced almost every Top 40 record that Olivia charted with in the U.S. from 1971’s If Not For You to 1985’s Soul Kiss. That’s an astonishing 23 hits, including 5 #1s over a two decade period. But that few people know about the hidden West Coast gem that this former member of the Strangers and the Shadows released in 1980.
John had married singer Pat Carroll in 1970 who was Liv’s singing partner In Australia and the threesome decided to move to the US to make it big. Within a few years he produced a few top 10 hits with his partner Bruce Walsh and by 1974 John had written the #1 smash, I Honestly Love You, which would win a Grammy for Record of the Year. He & Olivia would have continued success throughout the decade, but they both really hit their stride with two big hits from Grease (the #1, You’re the One That I Want and Hopelessly Devoted to You), the Totally Hot LP, the Xanadu soundtrack (which included the big #1 hit, Magic) and the zenith of Physical. (Juliana Hatfield has just released an album’s worth of Olivia covers, which I hope brings new attention to her and John’s work.)
Within that busy schedule, John was given a deal to release his own album of songs, and released his self-titled debut LP on Columbia Records. John performs all of the vocals, guitars and synths with drumming support from either Michael Botts or Ed Green, bass from Mike Porcaro and David McDaniels and keyboards by Tom Snow on the two of three songs he co-wrote with John.
I’ve often wondered if he wrote these songs with any specific singers in mind, because to me, Can’t Hold Back sounds like a lost Cliff Richard track from the We Don’t Talk Anymore-era and Reckless sounds like something ONJ would’ve easily melted hearts with. (Olivia would eventually record this as a duet with John in 2009.) Gettin’ Loose & Tell Who Someone Cares are aerobic workouts and most likely blueprints for Michael Sembello’s Maniac. But my favorite track is the first one on Side 2 – Recovery. Even though Olivia would record it for the Physical LP, I prefer John’s version. It’s got a smooth subtle island vibe with just enough rough edges to go along with the I’m-fine-all-by-myself energy of the lyrics. I dig the feel of the Caribbean-style guitar solo and I love the way it builds up to the hook of the chorus. As far a I know it was never released as a single but to me, this is the hidden West Coast gem.
This is a hard record to find on LP or CD, but do yourself a favor and seek it out. Here’s John’s version of Recovery:
When major West Coast artists such as Boz Scaggs, The Eagles & Steely Dan broke through into the mainstream during the mid-70s, a lot of artists followed that path to stardom and success.
Here’s a montage of West Coast pop which hit the Top 40 between 1977 & 1979:
What would Isaac Hayes sound like covering Big Love by Fleetwood Mac? Or Barry White? Or anyone who could turn this 3+ minute fast tempo’d tune into a luxurious 8 minute opus of sultriness? That’s a question I’ve always had since I first heard this song in the Spring of 1987 as the first single from Mac’s Tango In The Night LP. Underneath the cocaine jitter of the guitar licks, galloping drums and sinister vocal stylings from Lindsey Buckingham, I could hear a bluesy soul trying to bubble up even as the band repeatedly smothered it, like Mick Fleetwood bashing it down with his drum fills. Maybe that was intentional or the subconscious kicking in. After all the band began as a British blues band only to abruptly abandon their history and fully embrace to WestCoast pop.
I decided to slow the track down while trying to keep the integrity of the production (the song always sounded sped up to me anyway) and lo and behold if Lindsey doesn’t sound a bit like Issac. Stretch the song out, remove the drum fills, layer on some strings and you got some Hot Buttered WestCoast Soul.
Take a listen and tell me what you think:
Meetwood Flac – Big Love (The Soulful Spring Edit) from WestCoast Breeze on Vimeo.